Railroaders: a Hit

DELANO EXIBITION-32
Visitors explore the “Around the Yards” section of the exhibition, which features a model classification yard and wall-sized enlargement of the Illinois Central roundhouse at Markham Yard. Photograph by Henry A. Koshollek; see more photographs of the opening weekend activities on the Center’s Flickr page.

Smashing. That one word sums up the Chicago opening of the Center’s and the Chicago History Museum’s Railroaders: Jack Delano’s Homefront Photography exhibition on April 3, 4 and 5. Well over 1,200 visitors viewed it on those three days—200 on Thursday for the museum’s opening reception for members, 350 on Friday for the Center’s own reception for descendants and family members of the portrait subjects, and 650 for the museum’s public opening on Saturday. Museum staff members were agog. One said that Center’s Friday event was “simply one of the finest in my years at the museum.” And the museum store posted record sales that night. Authors John Gruber, Pablo Delano, and Jack Holzhueter signed copies of the catalog steadily for about two hours. Joseph C. Szabo, administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, gave the keynote remarks and blogged about his experience on the Department of Transportation’s website. Chicago publicity was over the top. The Chicago Tribune gave the show two-thirds of a page; the suburban Daily Herald featured it on its Friday front page; and a Sun-Times reviewer said that he was so touched by the film featuring Pablo Delano that he—a tough Chicago newsman—cried. We do not urge tears, but we do urge attendance and purchasing of a catalog.

“Railroaders” Exhibition Opens

Railroaders: Jack Delano's Homefront Photography
Entry graphic (left) and cover of the catalog for the exhibition Railroaders: Jack Delano’s Homefront Photography, which opens April 5 at the Chicago History Museum.

On April 5, the Center’s largest project to date, Railroaders: Jack Delano’s Homefront Photography, opens at the Chicago History Museum, the Center’s partner on the exhibition. The project reveals the humanity, heroism, and diversity of the Chicago railroad community whose work was instrumental to the war effort during World War II. In 1942, photographer Jack Delano was tasked by the federal government to capture images of the rail community to rally support for the war effort. The result was three thousand images, many of which highlight Chicago’s primacy to the North American rail network. The dignity of everyday work and the stories of individual railroaders and their descendants are explored in more than 60 photographs by Delano. The exhibition will be open at the Chicago History Museum through August 10, 2015.

See photographs from the April 4 preview reception for family members of the portrait subjects on our Facebook page.

To accompany the exhibition, the Center is publishing a lavishly-illustrated catalog with 108 images, 58 color and 50 black-and-white, 73 taken by Delano. Contemporary photographs of portrait subjects’ descendants and other family members were made by Pablo Delano, Jack Delano’s son, who teaches photography and art at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. The Center’s founder and past president, John Gruber, edited the catalog. Purchase the catalog and learn more about the exhibition on our website.

Tickets on Sale for 2014 Conference

Mike Danneman, New York Central Hudson taking water on the fly
Mike Danneman, One Fleeting Moment, 1990. New York Central J-3a Hudson locomotive no. 5450 scooping water on the fly along the Hudson River. Acrylic on stretched canvas, 48 in. by 24 in. Danneman and Ron Flanary will discuss their approaches to painting and photography at the 2014 conference.

The Center’s annual conference, Conversations about Photography, will be held May 16–18, 2014, on the campus of Lake Forest College (May 16–17) and at the Chicago History Museum (May 18). Presenters include Jeff Brouws, Scott Conarroe, Mike Danneman and Ron Flanary, Travis Dewitz, John Gruber, Victor Hand, Kevin P. Keefe, Blair Kooistra, Kathi Kube, and Glenn Willumson. Learn more and purchase tickets on the conference page.

Olsen Wins 2013 Gruber Award

First Place: Ronald Olsen

Ronald Olsen of Coventry, Rhode Island, has won first prize in the Center for Railroad Photography & Art’s 2013 John E. Gruber Photography Awards Program. Olsen has been photographing nocturnal steam operations in China since 2001, and his view from the Beitai Steelworks in Liaoning Province combines ambient lighting and industrial conditions in an unusual and very dramatic way. Second prize went to Daryl-Ann Saunders, Brooklyn, New York, while Nick D’Amato of Denver, Colorado, took third prize. Twenty-five additional photographers—hailing from three continents—received recognition in the “Judges Also Liked” category.

Go to the awards page to read more and see all of the winning and selected images.

Railroad Art Today


Wonderland, Adam Normandin, 24″ x 52″, acrylic and oil on panel, 2010.

Photography is not the only form of contemporary art depicting rail transportation. In spring 2013, the Center embarked on a survey of non-photographic art. Our survey resulted in responses from nearly 200 artists, primarily people working in paint, ink, or graphite, and an expanded issue of Railroad Heritage.

See our Flickr gallery of sample work from survey respondents.

We learned a lot more about contemporary rail artists. For example, most (57.7%) were either self-employed, employed part-time, or retired. A little over one quarter of respondents to our survey included some reference to the arts as part of their career. Frequent terms included “artist”, “graphic designer”, and “painter.” Slightly fewer (21%) mentioned current or past employment in the rail transportation industries.

Most of the artists we got responses from were self-taught, with only a little under a third having formal arts educations. Only 29 respondents described themselves as full-time artists, although another 33 stated they were working towards that goal.

Mediums Graph

Methods used by the artists were pretty evenly split between the three most popular painting mediums (oil, watercolor, and acrylics) and both pencils and inks. The category “other” had a strong showing as well, and included a variety of methods such as 3-D modelling, digital graphic designs, and digitally created paintings.

Excerpts from Responses

J. Craig Thorpe: Wilderness Threshold
Wilderness Threshold, J. Craig Thorpe, 18″ x 24″, oil on canvas, 2000.

One of the most illuminating parts of our survey was the range of comments. Artists told us about how they became interested in railways, how they developed their artistic abilities, and what inspires them. Here are some anonymous selections from the survey that we found engaging.

“My interest in trains goes as far back as my earliest childhood memories. Long before I could walk or talk, I remember being particularly aware of a sound at night that held me transfixed. It was complex… melodic… mysterious… mournful… and lugubrious. It was the sound of steam locomotive whistle on the Chicago and North Western mainline, which ran a mile from our house. Some people thought trains were part of my genetic make-up because I developed an interest in them so quickly. I responded to the whistle before I even knew what it was.”

“I discovered painting in my formidable years of college and always had been inspired by the work of photo realistic rail artists like Mike Schafer, Mike Dannemann and Gil Reid and started basing a lot of my subject matter on trains and railroads as my knowledge of color theory and painting technique began to develop.”

“I enjoy watching trains, artistically they are a cascade of changing shapes and shadows. In some mediums they are very linear and my style resonates with that aspect. The Industrial aspect shows beauty in mans intrusions into nature.”

“One of my favorite subjects is old towns in the upper midwest, mainly Minnesota, North Dakota, and eastern Montana, that were created because of the railroads, and whose fates were tied to those rails. People came with the trains and left when the trains stopped coming. Usually the train cars themselves are long gone, and only tracks remain, and other times even those have gone.”

“I like to show the human connection to the machines. Throughout my career I have learned to appreciate the moods of railroading and how it effects the humans that are part of that moment. The moods are part of the story that I attempt to create and share.”

Learn More

To learn more about this project, see issue 34 of Railroad Heritage. To see samples of work from artists who responded to the survey, as well as contact information for artists taking commissions, see our Flickr gallery, or view the slideshow below.